Let’s declare 2007 ‘The year of the dog’

A few months after remarkable events that kept the country wondering about its future, I would like to invite you on a brief journey of the imagination. The temperature has gone down somewhat and now we can calmly reflect.

Imagine you are watching Zizi Kodwa, described as ‘spokesperson of the African National Congress Youth League”, outside the court where Jacob Zuma was recently on trial. Kodwa was reported to have issued a call for ‘dogs to be hit very hard until their owners and handlers come out into the open”. My name, according to the reports, was one of four on a list of ‘dogs”.

Imagine Kodwa leading a crowd that has found a dog to beat and are surrounding it. They carry an assortment of weapons: fighting sticks, knobkerries, sjamboks, metal pipes and pangas. They are about to carry out a tactical, revolutionary task: ‘hitting a dog so hard that its owner and handler” will emerge and plead for mercy on its behalf.

The surrounded dog is terrified, helpless. There is no escape. Its eyes wide open, it watches the crowd closing in. Suddenly, the crowd pushes Kodwa to the centre, where he towers over the dog. He knows he is being given the privilege of the first blow. He acknowledges the honour as he lunges with his fighting stick. It is a powerful blow. It cracks a rib. The dog howls in pain.

The howl drives the crowd into a frenzied yell: ‘Bulalan’inja!” [‘Kill the dog!’]. The crowd weighs in randomly, indifferent to the dog’s pain as its howls and yelps pierce the calls for its death.

Finally, its spine broken, the dog lies on its side, still trying to raise its head, until a well-aimed knobkerrie blow smashes its skull. This silences the dog forever. The crowd continues, without a sound, to pound the dead dog’s body. You hear only the dull thud of blows on the marshy body. What you have just witnessed was no beating, but an execution.

The crowd then breaks into a triumphant cry, brandishing their weapons. They dance briefly around the dead dog and then begin to move away. Kodwa, leads them dancing and chanting: ‘awu leth’umshini wam.” They have just performed a service to South Africa, in the first decade of the 21st century.

You have just witnessed, in your imagination, the enactment of righteous brutality. It is the kind that follows belief preceded by unconsidered declaration. Once unleashed it never stops until its objectives have been carried out. You are probably glad that what you have just witnessed happened only in your imagination. But be warned: the reality around you can be as stark as the world of your imagination, sometimes surpassing it. Let me take you down memory lane.

Remember the Native Land Act of 1913 when tens of thousands of Africans were thrown off of their lands ‘like dogs”? Many years later, influx control laws were passed and Bantustans were created; hundreds of thousands of African families were uprooted and moved around ‘like dogs”. Today there are farmers who, having exploited them for decades, still throw black families into the wilderness ‘like dogs”.

Do you remember the pass law ‘offenders” crowded in apartheid prisons ‘like dogs”, many of whom were then carted off ‘like dogs” to work on white farms as free prison labour. Remember? White farms, mines, factories, construction companies, anywhere where ‘labour units” were required in large numbers, were experienced as places where people were treated ‘like dogs”.

Remember June 16 1976, when thousands of schoolchildren were shot at ‘like dogs”? And how the state sent ‘other dogs” from the hostels to attack township dwellers ‘like dogs”? It all led to Boipatong, where balaclava-hooded men, bussed in, split heads of babies with pangas ‘like dogs”. We still bus in people ‘like dogs” as ‘voting fodder” or as ‘demonstration fodder”, sometimes outside courts of law.

Remember the lonely and gruesome torment of Miss Maki S’khosana, described as the first victim of ‘the necklace”? Stunned by kicks and blows and stones ‘like a dog” as the tyre was placed round her neck?

Remember the old women of Limpopo killed ‘like dogs” because someone said they were ‘witches”? Or the man who beat a worker ‘like a dog” and fed him to lions? And consider, just recently, how policemen acting on our behalf were killed ‘like dogs” by criminals using AK-47s — the weapon glorified as ‘umshini wami”.

You can see why the word ‘dog” is never far from the imagining of violence and abuse in our society. Nja-mgodoyi! (starving dog) is an insult that lays the ground for a beating of someone. ‘Voetsek!” many of us say regularly to people we consider ‘dogs”. ‘Dog” is a pervasive metaphor habitually used to justify righteous brutality.

So, when Kodwa invokes the image of dogs being hit, he is showing how well-schooled he is in the archeology of denigration and brutal punishment. How many times will he have witnessed the beating of dogs (people) in his neighbourhood as he grew up? Could he have been such a victim himself? Did he accumulate his own list of victims, and then himself became, in time, the dog that hits others?

Come with me on another journey of the imagination. Imagine Kodwa has a dog and has experienced a profound conversion — like Saul, the persecutor of the Bible, who became Paul, a defender of Christians. Imagine that all those Kodwa addressed outside the court have puppies. Imagine that everyone has been bussed in with their dogs to the court. Imagine Kodwa addressing them.

‘Comrades!” he says, ‘we have had enough of violence. For too long we have used the dog as a symbol of abuse. This must now stop. The dog, comrades, is a special animal. It is intelligent. It is loyal. It is dependable. It is courageous. It is capable of empathy. It cares. Perhaps if we stop brutalising the dog, if we stop brutalising ourselves whenever we invoke the cruel image of the dog we have created, we may recover our own humanity, which we lost along the way of our history. It is time for us to step out of the mire of our violent history. Comrades, let us now honour the dog. Let’s declare 2007 ‘The Year of the Dog!’”

Imagine the crowd chanting: ‘Viva the dog!” They call for everyone to receive the gift of a dog. And they sing and dance:

Awu leth’inja yami

Uthath’umshini wakho

Ngiyayithand’inja yami

Thath’umshini wakho

Thath’umshini wakho, bo

Ngiyayithand’inja yami

(‘Bring me my dog / Take your machine gun away / I love my dog / Take your machine gun away / I love my dog!”) They are all hugging their dogs and this is how Kodwa and his crowd appear on the front pages of South Africa’s newspapers and on TV.

Kodwa’s puppy is happy. It is excited to be loved by him. It keeps licking his chin. He tries to turn his face away, but to no avail. ‘What the hell!” he says, and decides to let the dog lick his chin to its heart’s content. Why shouldn’t he enjoy being tickled by the rough softness of a puppy tongue? Imagine! How wonderful! Imagine people loving their dogs! Imagine happy dogs licking the chins of owners and handlers who will never again call for any dog, of whatever description, to be ‘hit hard”! Imagine, with each dog loved there is one less beating, one less killing of someone, by someone else somewhere in this beautiful country. Imagine all the people — loving all their dogs!

Snap out of your dream again. Perhaps you are now ready to make a declaration to your fellow citizens: ‘A child is not a dog to be beaten. A woman is not a dog to be beaten or raped. Workers in factories, farms, mines and domestic workers in plush homes, are not dogs to be exploited. The ‘learned ones” are not dogs to be ‘hit hard” for not eulogising a leader who erred and for appealing to him to think of a different approach.

The South African public is not a dog that cannot make up its mind about a television documentary on the president of the country. South Africa’s economy is not a dog to be plundered by fraudsters of any description. South Africa’s towns and cities are not dogs to be trashed whenever we are on strike. Workers who do not agree with a strike are not dogs to be pushed to their deaths out of moving trains. Commuters are not dogs to be insulted and humiliated by minibus taxi drivers; nor are they dogs to be dodging bullets between warring taxi associations.

Patients are not dogs to be abandoned to pain and death by striking nurses. Learners are not dogs to be abandoned to their ignorance by striking teachers. People living with Aids, desperately hoping for a cure, are not dogs on which all kinds of dubious theories and medications are tried out.

Foreigners, particularly Africans from other African countries, are not dogs to be insulted, beaten and killed. Councillors are not dogs to be hounded out of their neighbourhood after their houses have been set on fire. Yes, even the word ‘dog” is not a dog on which to pin the meaning of all versions of cruelty and death. Declare all this and more to everyone around you.

And then ask.

How did we come to view as debased an animal known for its intelligence, empathy, loyalty, dependability, courage, protectiveness, sensitivity and caring? Considering that so many of us own dogs, which depend on us, why do we continue to own what we seem to despise so much? How come an animal we own has become such a pervasive symbol of our own violence? How did we turn it into a symbol of abuse? Or could it be a symbol of our own failure to take care of it, and that it is somehow comforting to know that we have something more piteous than ourselves?

But let me return to Zizi Kodwa. With the best will in the world, I cannot bring myself to believe that when Kodwa stood outside the court calling for the ‘dogs to be hit very hard until their owners and handlers come out into the open” he was aware of the full, brutal implications of his call. He could not have been aware of the full history of violence he was invoking; the kind of violence his own political movement has been fighting and con- tinues to fight by building a new society through our Constitution.

I like to think he yielded to the seductiveness of a thoughtless moment. I like to think of him as a well-meaning young person who erred. I like to think he must have some remarkable qualities that got him to the position of leadership he occupies in the ANC Youth League. I like to think he is a good young man with a future ahead of him, and who might do better with wiser mentors. I like to think he should not have mentors who glorify guns on public forums 12 years after our country was freed.

I hope to meet him one day, reasonably confident that doing so will not bring about my violent end. After all, I do not have an ‘owner or handler” who will emerge to claim me during my brutal ordeal. No one, throughout my writing life, has ever instructed me to write what I have written. So, I could very well be ‘hit hard” like the dog of our imagination, until my last breath. But I like to believe Kodwa, in his calmer moments, does not really wish for me such a terrible end.

I would like to have a conversation with him, to reaffirm with him that our democracy is still about dialogue; about expressing informed opinions; about expressing genuine outrage; about changing one’s mind in the light of better argument; about accepting both the joys of victory and the pain of defeat; about the rule of law; about the difference between right and wrong; about orderly, efficient and caring government; about rights and responsibilities; and about the quest for beauty in intelligence, creativity, hope, kindness, humility, cooperation, friendliness, trust, conviction, respect, and courtesy in our living environments. I would like us to reaffirm our common commitment to a new and better society.

Who knows, we may come to thank Kodwa for starting a revolution he never intended: one that will occur the day South Africans reconnect with their humanity through a new and caring relationship with their dogs.

Perhaps, because of Kodwa, we may yet declare 2007 ‘The Year of the Dog”. In December next year, the ANC will hold its 52nd national conference, ‘the first assembly of the ANC’s highest decision-making body in the second decade of freedom”. Perhaps there, at what promises to be a crossroads conference, a resolution can be taken that the dog, so long denigrated, so long a symbol of abuse, should become a national symbol for the humanity of South Africans, as they celebrate qualities associated with this remarkable friend of humans: intelligence, empathy, loyalty, dependability, friendship, courage, protectiveness, sensitivity and caring. Yes, let’s declare 2007 ‘The Year of the Dog”.

Njabulo Ndebele is the author of Fools and Other Stories and The Cry of Winnie Mandela

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Njabulo Ndebele
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